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Waste Not
Will the Fashion Industry Come Clean on the Data Point That Matters Most for Circularity?

With 'Speak Volumes,' we aim to draw awareness to overproduction and create a more just distribution of responsibility for fashion waste clean-up — which builds on our overall goal of promoting a shift towards a justice-led, circular fashion economy.

When I left the fashion industry in the US and began working in Ghana in 2011, it was rare to find clothing waste on Accra’s beaches. Today, there are mounds of clothing taller than I am across the beaches and massive tentacles of clothing waste polluting waterways. The textile waste on Accra’s beaches makes it dangerous for children to play and difficult for turtles to lay their eggs; it has trapped puppies, leading them to drown as the tide comes in; and when the tentacles are animated by the waves, they are powerful enough to capsize fishing boats. The waste has devastated local fishing stocks, leading canoe fishermen to travel further out to sea and increasing the risk associated with this profession. Not to mention polluted water can increase the spread of diseases such as cholera and malaria. This textile-waste crisis has transformed the very ecology of Accra’s beaches and rivers, and it costs lives.

Importantly, these mounds of clothing waste are not the result of local overproduction or overconsumption. This clothing is secondhand — exported from Global North countries including the US, UK, EU and Canada. Through the beach cleanups The Or Foundation has affectionately termed “tag hunts,” we have catalogued that the most common brand labels in the waste stream are not local, but rather represent some of the biggest producers with profit centers in Global North countries — brands including H&M, Zara, Nike, adidas and Marks & Spencer.

Kantamanto, the largest secondhand marketplace in the world, is situated in the center of Accra and receives roughly 15 million secondhand garments every week in a country of only 32 million people. The 30,000 people who work in Kantamanto are doing an incredible job of successfully reselling, repairing and remanufacturing over 25 million garments, roughly 57,000 tonnes, per year. For comparison, For Days reports to have collected and processed 350,000 take-back bags — which is equivalent to no more than 2,381 tonnes, or roughly 450,000 garments in 2023; and ThredUp’s 2022 Impact Report states that the company has processed (not sold) 172.3 million items cumulatively since its founding in 2009.

While these Global North companies earn well-deserved praise for championing circularity, it is clear that the Kantamanto community has done far more, for decades, to process the byproduct of the Global North’s oversupplied fashion industry — developing replicable skills for not only resale but also repair and remanufacturing. Still, as all fashion brands know well, there is no retail utopia. Despite Kantamanto’s impressive efforts, 40 percent of the clothing in each bale cannot be sold and leaves the market as waste due to the oversaturation of lower-quality garments currently flooding the market.

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Accra’s textile-waste crisis may seem far away for you; but I am convinced that if our mounds of clothing occupied your favorite beach or your backyard, you would feel compelled to clean it up. What would be your first step in cleaning it up? Surely, you would want to know the amount of waste, assess the extent of the damage and then plan accordingly. This is what we have done here in Accra.

Now, we would like the industry as a whole to come clean on the number of garments produced every year. This is the one data point that we feel is most essential for our community — and for the industry as a whole — to not only address the current crisis but also to develop data-driven policies and a truly effective strategy for transitioning from linear to circular production.

Somehow, despite society’s near-constant tracking of data, we don’t know how many garments are produced each year. Researchers think it’s somewhere between 100 and 150 billion. There really is no excuse for this massive data gap. Production volume is the one data point that impacts everyone along the value chain — whether you are a garment worker, a shipping company, a designer, a retail associate, a clothing collector, a resale platform or a clothing charity. And companies know how many units they have ordered from suppliers or produced themselves.

Despite the lack of clarity on the number of garments currently in circulation, production volumes are expected to increase as evidenced by WRAP’s 2022/23 report — which shows a 13 percent increase in production volumes amongst Wrap’s Textiles 2020 member brands, which include 33 retailers that represent over 62 percent of all clothing products placed on the UK market. Our efforts to clean up the mess in our backyard are no match for endless production volumes; and without transparency on the number of garments produced, we cannot prepare for the impact of policies such as the EU’s mandated separate collection of textiles. Without this data, we question the EU’s ability to prepare itself for the impact of this mandate. Given that the industry currently recycles less than 1 percent of clothing into new clothing, we also question how emerging recycling solutions alone can possibly catch up — the investments made by brands in fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies such as Renewcell, Ambercycle, Worn Again or Recover will be futile if not paired with transparency on current production volumes and a concerted effort to reduce the production of new items made from virgin materials. If we continue on this current path, the growth in material volume of textiles is expected to see an increasing amount of nonrenewable textile sources — up to 300 million tonnes per year by 2050. The fashion industry would also end up using more than 20 percent of the world’s carbon budget associated with a 2°C pathway, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It’s not a lack of recycling technology that’s causing fashion’s waste crisis. It’s overproduction.

That’s why The Or Foundation launched “Speak Volumes” — a campaign to foster greater transparency within the fashion industry by encouraging brands, including the brands most often found washed up on Ghana’s beaches, to publicly disclose their production volumes by item. To date, Collina Strada, Finisterre, Lucy & Yak, Stripe & Stare, Asket and many others have not only disclosed their 2022 production volumes but committed to sharing production volumes in their sustainability reporting going forward. What started as a goal of 100 companies will continue until the biggest producers step up.

With “Speak Volumes,” we aim to draw awareness to overproduction and create a more just distribution of responsibility for fashion waste clean-up — which builds on our overall goal of addressing the fashion industry’s growing waste crisis and promoting a shift towards a justice-led, circular fashion economy. “Speak Volumes” is part of The Or Foundation’s Stop Waste Colonialism campaign, calling for extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies to be globally accountable and to include reduction targets — as outlined in our position paper on the issue.

Building on the momentum from the campaign:

  • Executives recognize that this is an effortless sustainability disclosure — compared to, for instance, calculating the carbon footprint — and that publishing such information can position them as a leader for setting this new standard.

  • Brands with resale platforms and circularity targets are recognizing the benefit of tracking production volumes as a measure of displacement and impact.

  • Journalists, researchers, sustainability advocates and policymakers have a clearer understanding of the difference between units, weight and SKUs when it comes to building infrastructure for circularity and crafting policy.

  • We encourage industry groups such as the Fashion Pact to publish volumes, promoting collective transparency.

Solving fashion’s waste crisis will require everyone working in fashion to act with urgency, as if the waste on Accra’s beaches represents the reality everywhere. We invite brands to be part of the movement to "Speak Volumes," while individuals can petition their favorite brands to participate.

To join this vital movement and embrace transparency, visit: https://stopwastecolonialism.org/speak-volumes

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